Researchers Find Sleep Apnea Can Take A Toll On Brain Function

If you suffer from sleep apnea or know someone who does, then you know how it harms a good night’s sleep. For those that are not aware of what sleep apnea is, it’s a disorder that is characterized by pauses in  breathing or instances of decreased breathing during sleep. Pauses in breathing can last for several seconds. When breathing is paused, carbon dioxide accumulates in the bloodstream and the brain is signaled to wake the person to resume breathing.

Once breathing is restored back to normal, the person can fall asleep again and the process continues throughout the night, hampering one’s sleep. People with sleep apnea suffer from daytime fatigue and sleepiness because of such a sleep disturbance. Those with the disorder also complain of things like poor concentration, as well as difficulty with remembering things in addition to stress and depression.

According to research by UCLA, one in 15 adults suffer from moderate to severe sleep apnea, waking up as many as 30 different times in a single hour. Thanks to new research coming out of UCLA’s School of Nursing, those who suffer from sleep apnea actually have significant changes in levels of two important chemicals in their brain, which could reflect why many of the disorder’s symptoms greatly impact their everyday lives.

These researchers primarily focused on the levels of two neurotransmitters 0 gamma-aminobutyric acid (aka GABA) and glutamate – with both resting in the part of the brain that’s called insula. GABA is a chemical messenger in one’s brain that acts as an inhibitor, helping them calm down when needed, affecting one’s mood and helping make endorphins. On the other hand, glutamate is like an accelerator. So when levels are high, the brain is now stressed and doesn’t function as it should. Ultimately, high levels of glutamate are toxic to one’s brain neurons and nerves.

The insula area is where one’s brain regulates things like emotion, physical functions like blood pressure and thinking. Researchers found that those with sleep apnea actually have lower levels of GABA and high levels of glutamate. Previous studies in relation to sleep apnea found structural changes in the brain, but this study has pinpointed two differences in how these influential chemicals work when someone has the disorder. The link between changes in the one’s state of the brain and sleep apnea is a step forward to how sleep apnea can be treated.

Not only will doctors treat sleep apnea with continuous positive airway pressure (aka CPAP), which is a machine that makes sleep a lot easier, doctors now understand that paying attention to brain function will also help their patients who suffer from other symptoms like memory loss, stress and more. These side effects can greatly impact one’s day-to-day routine. This study will hopefully prompt more research on sleep apnea, especially if treating the disorder will help return patients’ brain chemicals to normal levels. If not, then the type of treatments will be questioned to create ones that can be more effective in the future. New studies are now being done on how reducing glutamate levels by mindfulness exercises can actually calm the brain.

Are you concerned you or someone  you know may have sleep apnea? Take the free assessment by Lunella to make sure you are not at risk here.

Author: Kristie Bertucci

Edited: ASA Contributors

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